|Paired male (above), female (below)|
|Fifth instar silkmoth larvae|
|Silkworm (Bombyx mori)|
"Silkworm" in seal script (top), Traditional (middle), and Simplified (bottom) Chinese characters
The silkworm is the larva or caterpillar or imago of the domestic silkmoth, Bombyx mori (Latin: "silkworm of the mulberry tree"). It is an economically important insect, being a primary producer of silk. A silkworm's preferred food is white mulberry leaves, though they may eat other mulberry species and even osage orange. Domestic silkmoths are closely dependent on humans for reproduction, as a result of millennia of selective breeding. Wild silkmoths are different from their domestic cousins as they have not been selectively bred; they are not as commercially viable in the production of silk.
Sericulture, the practice of breeding silkworms for the production of raw silk, has been under way for at least 5,000 years in China, from where it spread to India, Korea, Japan, and the West. The silkworm was domesticated from the wild silkmoth Bombyx mandarina, which has a range from northern India to northern China, Korea, Japan, and the far eastern regions of Russia. The domesticated silkworm derives from Chinese rather than Japanese or Korean stock.
Silkworms were unlikely to have been domestically bred before the Neolithic age. Before then, the tools to manufacture quantities of silk thread had not been developed. The domesticated B. mori and the wild B. mandarina can still breed and sometimes produce hybrids.:342
Mulberry silkworms can be categorized into three different but connected groups or types. The major groups of silkworms fall under the univoltine ("uni-"=one, "voltine"=brood frequency) and bivoltine categories. The univoltine breed is generally linked with the geographical area within greater Europe. The eggs of this type hibernate during winter due to the cold climate, and cross-fertilize only by spring, generating silk only once annually. The second type is called bivoltine and is normally found in China, Japan, and Korea. The breeding process of this type takes place twice annually, a feat made possible through the slightly warmer climates and the resulting two life cycles. The polyvoltine type of mulberry silkworm can only be found in the tropics. The eggs are laid by female moths and hatch within nine to 12 days, so the resulting type can have up to eight separate life cycles throughout the year.
Eggs take about 14 days to hatch into larvae, which eat continuously. They have a preference for white mulberry, having an attraction to the mulberry odorant cis-jasmone. They are not monophagous since they can eat other species of Morus, as well as some other Moraceae, mostly Osage orange. They are covered with tiny black hairs. When the color of their heads turns darker, it indicates they are about to molt. After molting, the instar phase of the silkworms emerge white, naked, and with little horns on their backs.
After they have molted four times, their bodies become slightly yellow and the skin becomes tighter. The larvae then prepare to enter the pupal phase of their lifecycle, and enclose themselves in a cocoon made up of raw silk produced by the salivary glands. The final molt from larva to pupa takes place within the cocoon, which provides a vital layer of protection during the vulnerable, almost motionless pupal state. Many other Lepidoptera produce cocoons, but only a few--the Bombycidae, in particular the genus Bombyx, and the Saturniidae, in particular the genus Antheraea--have been exploited for fabric production.
If the animal is allowed to survive after spinning its cocoon and through the pupal phase of its lifecycle, it releases proteolytic enzymes to make a hole in the cocoon so it can emerge as an adult moth. These enzymes are destructive to the silk and can cause the silk fibers to break down from over a mile in length to segments of random length, which seriously reduces the value of the silk threads, but not silk cocoons used as "stuffing" available in China and elsewhere for doonas, jackets etc. To prevent this, silkworm cocoons are boiled. The heat kills the silkworms and the water makes the cocoons easier to unravel. Often, the silkworm itself is eaten.
As the process of harvesting the silk from the cocoon kills the larva, sericulture has been criticized by animal welfare and rights activists. Mahatma Gandhi was critical of silk production based on the Ahimsa philosophy "not to hurt any living thing". This led to Gandhi's promotion of cotton spinning machines, an example of which can be seen at the Gandhi Institute. He also promoted Ahimsa silk, wild silk made from the cocoons of wild and semiwild silkmoths.
The moth - the adult phase of the lifecycle - is not capable of functional flight, in contrast to the wild B. mandarina and other Bombyx species, whose males fly to meet females and for evasion from predators. Some may emerge with the ability to lift off and stay airborne, but sustained flight cannot be achieved. This is because their bodies are too big and heavy for their small wings. However, some silkmoths can still fly. Silkmoths have a wingspan of 3-5 cm (1.2-2.0 in) and a white, hairy body. Females are about two to three times bulkier than males (for they are carrying many eggs), but are similarly colored. Adult Bombycidae have reduced mouth parts and do not feed, though a human caretaker can feed them.
The cocoon is made of a thread of raw silk from 300 to about 900 m (1,000 to 3,000 ft) long. The fibers are very fine and lustrous, about 10 ?m (0.0004 in) in diameter. About 2,000 to 3,000 cocoons are required to make a pound of silk (0.4 kg). At least 70 million pounds of raw silk are produced each year, requiring nearly 10 billion cocoons.
Due to its small size and ease of culture, the silkworm has become a model organism in the study of lepidopteran and arthropod biology. Fundamental findings on pheromones, hormones, brain structures, and physiology have been made with the silkworm. One example of this was the molecular identification of the first known pheromone, bombykol, which required extracts from 500,000 individuals, due to the very small quantities of pheromone produced by any individual worm.
Currently, research is focusing on genetics of silkworms and the possibility of genetic engineering. Many hundreds of strains are maintained, and over 400 Mendelian mutations have been described. Another source suggests 1,000 inbred domesticated strains are kept worldwide. One useful development for the silk industry is silkworms that can feed on food other than mulberry leaves, including an artificial diet. Research on the genome also raises the possibility of genetically engineering silkworms to produce proteins, including pharmacological drugs, in the place of silk proteins. Bombyx mori females are also one of the few organisms with homologous chromosomes held together only by the synaptonemal complex (and not crossovers) during meiosis.
Kraig Biocraft Laboratories has used research from the Universities of Wyoming and Notre Dame in a collaborative effort to create a silkworm that is genetically altered to produce spider silk. In September 2010, the effort was announced as successful.
Researchers at Tufts developed scaffolds made of spongy silk that feel and look similar to human tissue. They are implanted during reconstructive surgery to support or restructure damaged ligaments, tendons, and other tissue. They also created implants made of silk and drug compounds which can be implanted under the skin for steady and gradual time release of medications.
Researchers at the MIT Media Lab experimented with silkworms to see what they would weave when left on surfaces with different curvatures. They found that on particularly straight webs of lines, the worms would connect neighboring lines with silk, weaving directly onto the given shape. Using this knowledge they built a silk pavilion with 6,500 silkworms over a number of days.
Silkworms have been used in antibiotics discovery as they have several advantageous traits compared to other invertebrate models. Antibiotics such as lysocin E, a non-ribosomal peptide synthesized by Lysobacter sp. RH2180-5 and GPI0363 are among the notable antibiotics discovered using silkworms.
The domesticated form, compared to the wild form, has increased cocoon size, body size, growth rate, and efficiency of its digestion. It has gained tolerance to human presence and handling, and also to living in crowded conditions. The domesticated moth cannot fly, so it needs human assistance in finding a mate, and it lacks fear of potential predators. The native color pigments are also lost, so the domesticated moths are leucistic since camouflage isn't useful when they only live in captivity. These changes have made the domesticated strains entirely dependent upon humans for survival. The eggs are kept in incubators to aid in their hatching.
Silkworms were first domesticated in China over 5,000 years ago. Since then, the silk production capacity of the species has increased nearly tenfold. The silkworm is one of the few organisms wherein the principles of genetics and breeding were applied to harvest maximum output. It is second only to maize in exploiting the principles of heterosis and cross breeding.
Silkworm breeding is aimed at the overall improvement of silkworm from a commercial point of view. The major objectives are improving fecundity (the egg-laying capacity of a breed), the health of larvae, quantity of cocoon and silk production, and disease resistance. Healthy larvae lead to a healthy cocoon crop. Health is dependent on factors such as better pupation rate, fewer dead larvae in the mountage, shorter larval duration (shorter larval duration lessens the chance of infection) and bluish-tinged fifth-instar larvae (which are healthier than the reddish-brown ones). Quantity of cocoon and silk produced are directly related to the pupation rate and larval weight. Healthier larvae have greater pupation rates and cocoon weights. Quality of cocoon and silk depends on a number of factors including genetics.
In the US, teachers may sometimes introduce the insect life cycle to their students by raising silkworms in the classroom as a science project. Students have a chance to observe complete life cycles of insect from egg stage to larvae, pupa, moth.
The silkworm has been raised as a hobby in countries such as China, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Iran. Children often pass on the eggs, creating a non-commercial population. The experience provides children with the opportunity to witness the life cycle of silkworms. The practice of raising silkworms by children as pets has, in non-silk farming South Africa, led to the development of extremely hardy landraces of silkworms, because they are invariably subjected to hardships not encountered by commercially farmed members of the species. However, these worms, not being selectively bred as such, are possibly inferior in silk production and may exhibit other undesirable traits.
The genome of the silkworm is mid-range with a genome size around 432 megabase pairs.
High genetic variability has been found in domestic lines of silkworms, though this is less than that among wild silkmoths (about 83 percent of wild genetic variation). This suggests a single event of domestication, and that it happened over a short period of time, with a large number of wild worms having been collected for domestication. Major questions, however, remain unanswered: "Whether this event was in a single location or in a short period of time in several locations cannot be deciphered from the data". Research also has yet to identify the area in China where domestication arose.
Silkworm pupae are eaten in some cultures.
In China, a legend indicates the discovery of the silkworm's silk was by an ancient empress Lei Zu, the wife of the Yellow Emperor and the daughter of XiLing-Shi. She was drinking tea under a tree when a silk cocoon fell into her tea. As she picked it out and started to wrap the silk thread around her finger, she slowly felt a warm sensation. When the silk ran out, she saw a small larva. In an instant, she realized this caterpillar larva was the source of the silk. She taught this to the people and it became widespread. Many more legends about the silkworm are told.
The Chinese guarded their knowledge of silk, but, according to one story, a Chinese princess given in marriage to a Khotan prince brought to the oasis the secret of silk manufacture, "hiding silkworms in her hair as part of her dowry", probably in the first half of the first century AD. About AD 550, Christian monks are said to have smuggled silkworms, in a hollow stick, out of China and sold the secret to the Byzantine Empire.
In traditional Chinese medicine, silkworm is the source of the "stiff silkworm", which is made from dried fourth- or fifth-instar larvae which have died of "white muscardine disease", the Beauveria bassiana fungal infection mentioned above. It is believed to dispel flatulence, dissolve phlegm, and relieve spasms.